Improve Open Plant Cleaning Results

How processors can enhance sustainability while reducing labor and resource use.

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The food and beverage sector is one of the most reliant on Earth’s natural resources, making environmental impact a priority for industry leaders. Nowadays, sustainability doesn’t refer solely to minimizing a company’s pollution and emissions, but also includes improving health and safety, and lowering energy and water consumption. 

For food and beverage processors, cleaning a production facility to the required levels has a significant impact on production time, labor, and utility costs. While open plant cleaning (OPC) programs are resource-intensive processes, they are crucial for maintaining hygiene standards and uncompromised food safety. Fortunately, continued advancements in cleaning technology can help processors turn cleaning time into profitable production capacity, benefiting from less time, labor, and resources.  

The State of Sustainability in Food & Beverage  

Relentless pressure to produce with the lowest possible environmental footprint is felt amongst all food and beverage processors. A 2021 study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that the food industry produces more than one-third of man-made global greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve more sustainable practices and products, the industry needs to attack the issue from end to end. A processor’s sustainability agenda is as important as those tilling the fields, raising livestock, manufacturing ingredients, or transporting fertilizers and pesticides. 

Sustainability isn’t just a concern for companies in the food and beverage industry; consumers also have a stake in lessening the world’s environmental footprint. As consumers continue to learn about sustainability scores and carbon footprint labeling—and prefer more sustainable goods—food and beverage companies need to be proactive about their sustainability goals and initiatives to match consumer demand.

Resolving Challenges for Open Plant Cleaning 

Cleaning and sanitizing products and production facilities lead to a significant amount of energy and resource use. Heavily soiled process areas—like those that endure buildup of fat, protein, and tallow soils—often require more water, labor, energy, and chemical consumption, increasing the environmental impact and bottom line of a plant’s production process. 

For over 30 years, OPC processes have roughly remained the same. The most time-intensive steps of OPC include manual gross soil removal and the initial rinse stage. Manual soil removal involves sanitation employees physically removing heavy soil deposits. What follows is an intensive rinse stage where workers apply hot water to finish breaking down these residues. Once these residues are dissolved, a detergent is applied and allowed to “soak” before getting rinsed. Finally, sanitizer or disinfectant is used and the space is rinsed one final time. This traditional cleaning process can take hours to complete—consuming valuable production time and resulting in high labor and utility costs.

By challenging traditional cleaning methods, food and beverage safety partners have made strides with innovations that decrease the overall use of time, resources, and labor. Some key solutions for optimizing OPC include:

Pre-clean Technology — Because Water Isn’t Enough: When dealing with heavily soiled areas, a large portion of cleaning may be spent removing tough soils from the equipment and plant floor. Oftentimes hot water is not enough to remove fat, protein, and tallow—which is why it takes so long for sanitation employees to work down these residues. To create a more efficient cleaning procedure that consumes less time and water, chemical assistance is required. 

Pre-clean technologies are designed to gain production time, reduce labor and utility costs, and meet a higher standard of hygiene by more efficiently dissolving tough residues and reducing pathogen spread. When using pre-clean technology, processors can skip the intensive hot water rinse and shorten other steps in the process.  

Automation Technologies for Open Plant Cleaning: Because of high sanitation standards, processors may spend more time, water, energy, and chemicals than necessary. Automation can allow for more control of time and resource use, so processors can set and achieve sustainable, efficient KPIs. 

Automated OPC systems tend to be most suitable for large-scale facilities that include complex production units. Opting for automated equipment ensures that hard-to-reach spots are consistently and adequately covered during the cleaning and sanitizing process—leaving little room for human error. By automating OPC processes, processors can optimize time, reduce labor, better manage resource use, and improve the overall quality of each clean.  

Continually Monitoring Cleaning Procedures to Identify Areas of Improvement: It is common for processors to have little insight into how their current OPC processes perform. While automated technologies can help provide more information, automation isn’t right for every processing facility. Regardless of the direction a processor takes to achieve a more efficient OPC program, these procedures and systems should be reviewed regularly to ensure standards of food safety, sustainability, and production time are continuously met. 

By conducting a regular audit of current cleaning procedures, processors can assess the sustainability impact of their chemicals, monitor utility and chemical use, and assess how well soils and allergens are removed for ultimate microbiological standards. Only by continually analyzing the efficacy of the cleaning regimen, processors can identify under-performing processes and improve food safety, increase operational efficiency, and reduce total costs. 

Implementing the right cleaning technologies for each facility and product can help achieve high hygiene and food safety standards, while also increasing a processor’s production time and yield. In addition to reduced energy and consumption use, processors may find that these solutions can also help reduce their need for labor. Pre-clean chemistries eliminate the difficult and lengthy hot water rinses, automation helps remove labor around cleaning procedures, and regular monitoring of cleaning systems takes a proactive role in optimizing labor. This is an especially important benefit as the labor shortage continues to pose challenges for the food and beverage industry. 

With labor, energy, and water representing a significant portion of the total cost of cleaning within the processed food industry, why continue to use people, water, and time inefficiently? Given the constraints of food safety standards, processors need to reposition their current cleaning processes to produce and process food in a way that not only protects the environment, but also uses resources more efficiently.

Fabrizio Tardioli is the global marketing director for processed food at Diversey.

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